Should Europe Fear Moscow's Missiles?

What to make of chatter that Russia has moved Iskander ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad.

During his annual marathon press conference earlier this week, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied that short-range Iskander SS-26 tactical ballistic missiles had been deployed in the western enclave of Kaliningrad. Putin's comments contradict statements made a few days earlier by Major General Igor Konashenkov, who stated, "Rocket and artillery units of the Western Military District are really armed with Iskander tactical missile systems." Putin, in contrast, maintains that no decision has been finalized.

Whether the missiles are there (the German newspaper Bild claims to have satellite imagery showing the systems already in place) or whether Russia has not yet finalized its plans, should the United States be concerned about even the possibility that Iskanders would be deployed and activated in Kaliningrad?

The Iskander has a range of approximately 310 miles and was designed to be a more accurate replacement for the older and less reliable Soviet-era SCUD rocket. The Iskander system is meant to be able to deliver precision, pinpoint strikes on targets. It is a hypersonic rocket (traveling over Mach 5) and is considered to be highly maneuverable in flight in order to evade defensive counter-measures; it can also be retargeted after launch if it is tracking a moving target. The Iskander can be fitted with a variety of conventional or tactical nuclear warheads depending on the mission; it can be used to disrupt communications, destroy bunkers or target ground units.

If deployed and activated in the Kaliningrad region, Iskanders would be able to strike targets in the new NATO members of Poland and the Baltic States, including the locations that have been set aside as the permanent land-based components of a U.S. theater ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Europe—the radar systems as well as ground-based interceptors (although, at present, U.S. plans to site more advanced SM-3 IIB rockets in Poland within a decade have been put on hold) Significantly, Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad pose no threat to the territories of Russia's traditional European partners further West, notably Germany. That, along with Putin's additional comments about U.S. tactical nuclear weapons still resident in Europe that are "uncontrolled" by Europeans, may indicate that Moscow wants to reframe the issue away from "Russia versus the West" into a narrative which would get "old Europe" to question the value and utility of having the new NATO members and the United States take steps which aggravate relations with Russia.

Indeed, Russia has regularly threatened to install the Iskanders should the United States and its NATO partners proceed with the development of a theater BMD system; one of the most memorable was when former president Dmitry Medvedev declared that Iskanders would be deployed one day after the November 2008 election of Barack Obama. But, in the past, Russia never followed through on these pronouncements, due to concerns that this might create problems in its relations with the West. So what might have changed the Russian calculations?

First, the reset is over. In the past, Russian restraint in not deploying this potent weapons system in an enclave surrounded by NATO members was expected to produce reciprocal gestures, and initially, Moscow interpreted the Obama administration's decision in September 2009 to cancel the Bush-era BMD program as a sign of conciliation. But the Obama team moved to retool, rather than scrap, the Bush plans.

The U.S. has always maintained that the BMD system in Europe is meant to offset a potential emerging threat from Iran, a claim that has always been met with suspicion in Moscow. So when the interim agreement was signed in Geneva which could lay out a roadmap for a definitive settlement of the Iran nuclear issue, the Russians were expecting some sign that, as long as Iran was suspending its nuclear activities, Washington might in turn suspend its BMD plans. Putin and other Russian officials have pointedly raised this question, asking why the U.S. is continuing to deploy BMD components while heralding the diplomatic breakthrough with Iran. An Iskander deployment would be the clearest signal Moscow could send that it does not accept the U.S. rationale for the system, and may in addition be designed to put pressure on European states to query Washington about the future of BMD if a settlement with Iran is reached.

And while there is guarded optimism over a possible permanent agreement with Iran, the geopolitical competition with the West over Ukraine—an issue Moscow thought was settled after the 2010 Ukrainian elections—has resumed. Even though the United States continuously stresses it recognizes no "spheres of influence", in practice, after the 2008 Georgian incursion, Washington had backed away from overt efforts to promote major changes in the Eurasian balance of power. With Ukraine reentering as an arena of competition, we have also seen, in the past year, the largest Russian military exercises along its western borders since the end of the Cold War and the first major NATO exercise last month ("Steadfast Jazz") with its newest members in dealing with a possible incursion from a large, unnamed external actor.

The United States, still focused on ongoing operations in the Middle East and committed to a rebalancing strategy that will give priority of place to the Asia-Pacific region, has not wanted to "return" to Europe in force. A secondary reason for the deployment of BMD assets to eastern Europe has been to signal the seriousness of the U.S. commitment to NATO's new members but without having to send large numbers of U.S. forces or equipment. A Russian Iskander deployment to Kaliningrad would be a major challenge to the assessment that America's NATO commitments in this region could be down at low cost and at low risk.

At the same time, however, although the Iskander system is a potent threat, it too would be a largely symbolic gesture. Short-range missile batteries are not the same as large formations of assault forces poised to sweep over borders. Poland (and U.S. forces in Poland) would be no more vulnerable to Russian attack than they would be now. In addition, putting the Iskanders in place (and they are being deployed in other parts of Russia as well) is an easy way for the Kremlin to signal it is protecting Russia. The U.S. is right to query Russia as to its intentions, and to express concern, but, just as when a pair of ageing Backfire bombers flies to the Caribbean, it is important not to overreact.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.

Image: Flickr/Asitimes. CC BY 2.0.